The Hardball series has been around quite some time, so you might expect the latest version, Hardball 6, to completely surpass rookie efforts like 3DO's High Heat Baseball or relative newcomers like EA's Triple Play series. Unfortunately for Accolade, that's just not the case. Hardball 6 could be a solid offering, but a number of flaws add up to a nearly unplayable game.
The first thing that you're likely to notice about Hard Ball 6 is the positively lackluster sound and graphics. Greg Papa's play by play is poorly recorded and badly spliced together, the looping crowd noises are so annoying they beg to be turned off, and, inexplicably, the umpires are completely silent. The graphics are a little better, but not much. Though the game has an MLB and MLBPA license with faces and uniforms that resemble their real-world counterparts, the choppy animation and inadequately detailed stadiums are a far cry from competing titles.
After the initial poor impression, Hardball 6 seems to redeem itself with a successfully implemented pitcher/batter duel -- the most important part of an action-oriented baseball game. For fans of the series, there are no surprises here. Much like Hardball 5, the batting interface allows you to choose a strategy (Hit & Run, Steal, Squeeze or Double Steal), then the type of swing (Contact, Power, Bunt or Opposite field) and, finally, the location of the swing. The system works well, and because the difficulty, speed and control options are flexible, it's easy to find a comfortable way to play the game so that it is challenging without being frustrating (a real problem with Microsoft Baseball 3D). The pitching interface is equally as smooth. You begin with strategy and pitch selection and then use the D-pad to aim the pitch. Again, flexibility is the key here--you can choose to turn on or off the aiming cursor, you can let the computer set your fielding alignment, you can even play the game in "single pitch mode," if you want each at bat to be resolved immediately.
Where things again take a turn towards the substandard is in the fielding interface and Hardball's inexplicable failure to respect the basic tenets of baseball logic. The most annoying problem is the impossibly quick reflexes required to move infielders into position for even the most routine ground balls. On the AI side, outfielders frequently misjudge the cutoff route to blooped singles. As if this weren't enough to frustrate, the computer controlled batters almost always swing at and hit the first pitch they see and the computer controlled pitchers throw enough strikes to send Greg Maddux to double A in Durham. This is no joke: I have never seen the computer issue a walk. Never. Add to this the computer manager's tendency to steal bases at the most inopportune moments and make inexplicable pitching and pinch-hitting substitutions and the game starts to look very little like the sport you know and love. There are more problems, but they aren't worth going into -- suffice it to say that Hardball 6 does not come anywhere close to replicating the feel of a real baseball game.
Though Hardball can be played in a "manager mode," I can't imagine many people running the game this way. Most manage-only types require a realistic simulation of baseball to be satisfied with the outcome of their strategic decisions. With the impossibility of walks, a bogus pitcher fatigue model, and a seemingly intoxicated computer AI manager as your opponent, playing Hardball 6 in this fashion would just be an exercise in frustration.
Perhaps the only saving grace for Hardball 6 is its multiplayer capacity. The game can accommodate two players on a single machine and also supports modem, serial link, LAN and Internet multiplayer. In fact, if you're dying to play an action-oriented baseball game on the Internet, then Hardball 6 may be your only choice. The FPS: Baseball Pro and Triple Play games only work in manager-mode on the Internet and MS Baseball 3D and High Heat don't support Internet multiplayer at all.
The bottom line is this: if you have seen Hardball 6 in a bargain bin somewhere, doubt my ability to review a game, or really want to play arcade-style baseball on the Internet with your buddy in Nebraska, then by all means pick up a copy right away. Otherwise, try High Heat Baseball or wait for next year's offerings.